A new system at New Mexico magistrate and district courts allows people to resolve disputes over consumer debt online for free.

After a pilot program in three judicial districts and Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court earlier this summer, the Online Dispute Resolution system became available across the state, including in Sandoval County in the 13th Judicial District, last week. Parties in cases filed after Sept. 1 can use it.

“We’re excited about it in the judiciary because it helps people because a lot of times these cases involve people without a lawyer and who don’t have money for a lawyer,” said 13th Judicial District Court Chief Judge Louis P. McDonald.

By negotiating a settlement online, defendants can avoid hurting their credit rating long-term or having wages or a bank account garnished, McDonald said. Plus, not going to court saves time off work and money for both parties.

“It would move the case through the situation more quickly,” he said of the ODR system.

Civil cases can take months or longer to be resolved in court, McDonald said. Online Dispute Resolution frees up courtrooms and the time of judges and court staff to handle other matters, saving taxpayers money.

From April 2018 through April 2019, 1,320 “debt money due” cases were filed in Sandoval County District Court and 806 were filed in Sandoval County Magistrate Court, he said. Those numbers are the sixth-highest among New Mexico counties.

The system allows the plaintiff and defendant in debt money due cases to negotiate a solution via secure online messaging, according to a news release from the state Administrative Office of the Courts. It’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from any computer or mobile device with internet access.

Debt money due cases often involve unpaid credit card or hospital bills, according to the release. They don’t include foreclosures, McDonald said.

He said the plaintiff files a complaint with a court to begin such a case. Then the defendant is notified and files an answer or ignores the complaint, which leads to the court making a default judgment.

With the online system, if the defendant answers, the plaintiff receives an email with a link to make an offer for a settlement. The defendant can accept or reject the offer and make counter offers.

Within the first two weeks of negotiation, either party can ask for help from a trained online mediator.

If they reach an agreement, the system prepares a settlement document and automatically files it for the court to enforce, according to the release. If the parties can’t reach an agreement after 30 days, online negotiation ends and the case moves forward in court.

Also, McDonald said the plaintiff in such cases must make a first offer through the online system. After that, either party can choose at any time to bring the case to court instead.